Interview by Colleen Davis
A Conversation with Janet Benton, author of LILLI DE JONG (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)
Janet Benton’s debut novel, Lilli de Jong, has received praise from critics and readers alike. Kirkus Reviews called the book a “monumental accomplishment.” Both National Public Radio (NPR) and Library Journal recognized it as a Best Book of 2017. Lilli de Jong was also a 2017 Goodreads semifinalist for Best Historical Fiction, sharing space on the list with works by Pulitzer Prize winners Michael Chabon and Jennifer Egan. Read Joanne Green’s Cleaver review here.
While this is Benton’s first published novel, she has maintained a presence in metropolitan Philadelphia through years of work as a writer and editor. Her pieces have been published in magazines and newspapers (including the New York Times “Modern Love” column), and she’s taught writing at four universities. She also serves as a mentor and teacher at The Word Studio, a creative center that’s been a talent incubator for local writers. While the triumph of her first novel may look like an overnight success, her achievements are the product of decades of diligent effort. Benton’s mastery of craft elevates the tale of Lilli de Jong to a tour-de-force that harkens back to the great Victorian novels, which continue to transform college students into aspiring writers.—Colleen Davis
Colleen Davis: Thank you for meeting with me today. I’d like to start by saying congratulations. Critics and readers have applauded your wonderful book, Lilli de Jong. I’ve looked at a lot of the reviews, and I’m wondering whether or not you were surprised by any reactions you got back from readers.
Janet Benton: Yes, there has been one surprising reaction. It never occurred to me that the presence of breastfeeding in a book about newborns and wet nursing would seem out of place to some people. I actually find it amusing. If you’ve ever nursed a newborn, you know nursing happens quite often—not to mention that, at times, Lilli was nursing two newborns! I barely mentioned breastfeeding compared to the number of times it would have had to happen. But then other people said the descriptions of breastfeeding were one of the strengths of the book. There aren’t many books that really describe breastfeeding. A lot of mothers have told me how grateful they are for how I highlighted that relationship.
…people said the descriptions of breastfeeding were one of the strengths of the book. There aren’t many books that really describe breastfeeding. A lot of mothers have told me how grateful they are for how I highlighted that relationship.
CD: Did the book find any new audiences that you hadn’t thought about when you were writing it? I’m asking partly because, as a person who has never breastfed a child, I could still really relate to Lilli’s struggle over having to make a decision about caring for her child or entrusting it to someone else. I think many caregivers in our society find themselves faced with similar questions.
JB: Readers who have adopted children told me they felt really moved to consider the situations of mothers who give up a child. And some people who have never had children have written to say that they were grateful to be plunged so viscerally into the experiences of pregnancy and early motherhood. Men have said the same thing, that they were glad to be put in close contact with those physical and emotional experiences. And as you point out, so many of us are giving ongoing care to people we love, in so many circumstances. This work is crucial and irreplaceable, yet it’s the most undervalued work in our society.
CD: The book examines a woman’s experience in great detail. What has been the response from male readers? Do you have a large male audience reading the book as well?
JB: It’s a disturbing, well-known fact that, in general, men read few books written by women, whereas women—particularly while growing up, in English classes—rarely read books not written by male writers. If you look at the books that win prizes, too, there is some sad data showing that books written by men with male protagonists win the majority of prizes every year. I’m a woman, and I wrote a book with a female protagonist. Most of my readers have been women. Yet the men who have read it have been quite affected by it…. and others buy it for women in their lives.
CD: On the heels of your achievement, you were asked to interview the celebrated author Isabel Allende. How did that come about?
JB: I was invited to be a part of the Author Series at the Free Library [of Philadelphia]. After that interview, I was in correspondence with Andy Kahan, who runs the series. I told him that I love interviewing people, and if there was ever an author he needed an interviewer for, I’d be available. He wrote back immediately, asking, “How about Isabel Allende?” I was thrilled.
CD: Wow, impressive! Did any of her observations have special resonance for you?
JB: Yes. She described her writing process in ways I thought were useful and interesting. Once she has an initial, rough idea, she does a lot of research. Then, she said, “I try to tell the story from the belly, not from the brain. Let it be. Let it come. And then the editing, the correcting time comes, and that’s very cerebral . . . .I think that my mind works in circles and spirals, never in a straight line. I just go around and around, and sometimes the circle starts getting smaller and smaller, until finally I sort of get the story.” I love knowing that, after thirty-five years of writing and twenty-three published books, she understands the phases of her process as both linear—research, writing, revising—and nonlinear—a gradual tightening of a circle of ideas.
When I did bring it to the market and tried to find an agent and a publisher, it all happened very quickly, because I had worked extraordinarily hard. I estimate it took about eight thousand hours to research and write the novel.
CD: Could you talk a little bit about your “overnight success” with Lilli de Jong and how long that process took?
JB: I’ve been writing ever since I was able to write. I went to graduate school for fiction writing, and I’ve been writing and editing for others for my entire career. I’d started several novels and never finished one. I was never obsessed enough to spend that many hours, in addition to working and having a family. But this story just meant so much to me that I was willing to give up a lot of other things over the course of many years in order to finish it. When I did bring it to the market and tried to find an agent and a publisher, it all happened very quickly, because I had worked extraordinarily hard. I estimate it took about eight thousand hours to research and write the novel.
CD: Roughly how many years passed between inception and publication of the book?
JB: The very first glimmer of the idea came to me in the summer of 2003. The book was sold in July 2015, and it was published in hardcover twenty-two months later, in May 2017. It’s also out in audio, e-book, and large-print editions.
CD: During that twelve-year period, you went through different phases of story development, including research, drafting, and editing. Can you talk about those phases and which of those was the hardest for you?
JB: The hardest thing for me was getting the whole story out from start to finish. After having the initial idea and writing a pile of paragraphs, I began to research. I started reading about unwed mothers and wet nurses in general. I’m very grateful to the historians who’ve gathered that information and shared their understandings. I read contemporary books about women who had given away children, too. I re-read some of my Victorian favorites, like Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Scarlet Letter. I read Samuel Richardson’s novels Pamela and Clarissa.
I also read as many historical documents as I could. I tried to read diaries from the time, but often people’s handwriting was difficult to decipher. I went to a historical society to read some diaries, but I could hardly read the handwriting. Luckily many printed books from the late nineteenth century have been scanned and are available as PDFs, so I was able to download an array of books . . . housekeeping advice, the laws and regulations for the city of Philadelphia, memoirs, lists of charitable institutions, guides for working with the poor, and much more.
CD: What was difficult about drafting the first chapters? Was it creating the plot itself?
JB: No, it was making sure everything was historically accurate: What babies wore, where the characters might be living, how servants might behave, how they would dress, how a charity for unwed mothers might be run and by whom, and on and on. You can’t take anything for granted. Take something as simple as the word backyard: Did they even have backyards? Did that term mean then what it does now? I subscribed to the online Oxford English Dictionary and used it a great deal. For example, if I said that something gave Lilli a jolt, I’d need to check—was that word used prior to the invention of electricity? You have to interrogate every single word, every metaphor. Not to mention every physical object in the book. What foods did they cook? I found recipes and menus. I found a book from the 1880s on hackney carriage fares. All of those things are, as far as I could tell, accurate to the time. I created entirely made-up characters, but I put them in a container that was as accurate as I could make it.
CD: Lilli is a great character. She’s smart and plucky and very persistent. Even when she’s afraid, she plunges forward. Would she have been the same kind of person if she had been born Episcopalian or Catholic? Did her Quaker upbringing make a difference?
JB: Yes, I meant it to. She had been educated equally to boys. She grew up with a strong mother who had high expectations for her. She was given a foundation for finding her own truth, which is the Quaker method of silent waiting. She had faith in herself. The Quakers suffered greatly at the beginning because they were considered highly radical to believe that a human could have direct contact with God. My feeling was that someone raised like that could have great faith in her inner wisdom. She would know she could still be making the right choice even if others felt she was making the wrong choice.
CD: How did you manage being a parent at the same time you were writing a book and working?
JB: I would love it if women’s magazines would stop pretending that there is a way to have a so-called balanced life. I think you’re always failing at one thing or another, if you’re working and trying to raise a family—and add in writing a novel! I tried to ensure that my daughter would not suffer as a result of my writing the book—so I lost a lot of income. I wanted to write the book so badly, and I wanted to finish it. I made many sacrifices.
…when my daughter was about seven or eight years old, I started to go away for a weekend here and there, and I would write for sixteen hours each day. I would write and get up to eat and write more and sleep, do that for one more day, then go home.
CD: Did you set up a rigorous writing schedule every day?
JB: There were times when I could set aside a certain number of hours to write. I’d block them out on my calendar. And when my daughter was about seven or eight years old, I started to go away for a weekend here and there, and I would write for sixteen hours each day. I would write and get up to eat and write more and sleep, do that for one more day, then go home. I would motivate myself with deadlines, and I was in a writing group for a few years, so I had to produce something every month. For one year, I was lucky to have a woman who was a student and a friend with whom I traded five pages a week. I was only able to do that because my great Aunt Ruth died and left me a small inheritance, and my mother also helped us that year. That was the only way I was able to finish a full draft while running my business and raising a family. But even after that year, I still had years of work to do, and I had to make up for the loss of income. Talk about pressure. By several years later, I really wanted to finish it, so I went back into the very low-income phase for about six months. And then it sold.
Once the novel had been sold, I felt like the mirrors in the changing room had become two-way. I got even more self-conscious about every little sentence. Every time I got a set of page proofs, I revised more. Ultimately I felt that my book needed protection from me. It was a relief when it reached the phase when I could do nothing more to it.
CD: All the detail work definitely paid off. Although I’m rarely able to read a book fast, I read yours very quickly because I really wanted to know what would happen to the main character.
JB: That’s gratifying to hear! People often tell me they read it in a white heat.
CD: You’re running a household and you’re working. You’re a mom, a wife, a daughter. What do you do when you get a tremendous blast of inspiration and you suddenly have to solve a really mundane problem?
JB: I have all these piles of scraps, and they go back many years, and they weigh on me heavily. I have all these bursts of things I want to write, and I am horribly behind. I got even more behind by taking so long to write this book. At least I’ve finished a few things over the past years, but I have so much more to do. It’s quite painful. I wish I could write full time.
CD: The book would make a wonderful film. Has anyone expressed interest in film rights?
JB: I would love for there to be a film. Yes, there has been interest in the film rights, but no one has bought them yet.
CD: What are the most special things to emerge from the publishing experience so far?
JB: It’s been very special to see that the book is important to a lot of mothers. It affirms the value of their experience, their work and struggles. A lot of people buy the book for themselves and then buy more copies for women they love. The paperback is coming out this summer, on July 10. I hope lots of book clubs will continue reading it. It’s a good book for discussion. People tell me they talk about women’s opportunities and lives in the nineteenth century and now, the challenges of caring for infants, the choices Lilli had to make and what they might have done in such circumstances. They have very lively evenings. One group dressed in period costumes and invented a special drink they called mother’s milk.
CD: Do you have advice for other writers?
A lot of people will say, “I’ve had this book idea for twenty years. And I’m just waiting until the right time in my life.” And I’m thinking, No, no, no! You just have to start.
JB: My advice for any writer who hasn’t yet given the priority to their work is just to start. Start now. You’ll never have enough time; you’ll never have the right circumstances. Be satisfied with any little scrap you can create in a day or a week. One or two sentences a day or a week adds up to something over time. Once you have something, it’s a lot easier to create more. A lot of people will say, “I’ve had this book idea for twenty years. And I’m just waiting until the right time in my life.” And I’m thinking, No, no, no! You just have to start. My mother, who’s an artist, used to tell me that you have to do what you love “in spite of.”
CD: Your mother is an artist, and you are a writer. Does your daughter show signs of the restless creative impulse?
JB: Yes. She used to like to do tons of writing and reading, but now that she has a phone, she’s showing interest in photography, too. My mom definitely gave me the understanding of what it meant to be a creative person. What I see from her and what I know from my own life is that having a creative pursuit is a way of continually healing yourself. Whatever comes into your life, you can heal yourself if you have a vehicle for letting it out and exploring it in a creative way. Having a creative outlet is good for your emotional health. So I’m very glad my daughter is learning this, too.
Colleen Davis is a Pennsylvania writer and author of the website Between the Pond and the Woods, which provides information and a Facebook forum for dementia caregivers. Her writing has been featured in Making Sense of Alzheimer’s, Elephant Journal, and on episodes of the television documentary Philadelphia: The Great Experiment